Law protects Idaho’s god-besotted healers
In the American state of Idaho, authorities do not investigate or prosecute faith-healing deaths. In the last three years at least 12 children of faith-healing parents have died in the state, largely without scrutiny from the public or the media – and not a single charge has been filed.
Idaho’s shocking number of faith-healing deaths came into the spotlight this month as a result of a horrifying case not in the state itself, but in neighbouring Oregon, which, in contrast, has stringent laws to protect people from faith healers.
Since 2011, when Oregon eliminated the last of its religious-defence statutes, officials have been empowered to use the full force of the law to prosecute parents who endanger their childrens’ lives with prayer.
The law was used earlier this year against Wenona and Travis Rossiter (above) of Albany, who were convicted of manslaughter following the death of their 12-year-old daughter Syble in 2013. The child died as a result of untreated diabetic ketoacidosis. Her parents avoided proper treatment because they were members of a fundamentalist faith-healing church that did not believe in any medical interventions.
The child had been visibly sick for over a year, and had lost so much weight the month before her death that one of her teachers had even attempted to intervene.
The couple’s lawyers had unsuccessfully argued that their religious faith should have been excluded from the trial on the grounds that it was prejudicial.
The Rossiters will be sentenced on December 19, and it is not clear yet whether or not they will be going to jail or if they will get off with probation.
The Church of the First Born, the church the Rossiters belonged to, is a fundamentalist Christian sect which holds that seeking medical treatment is a sin and that congregants should ask God to heal them instead of doctors. The Rossiter’s daughter is not the first child linked to this church to die of a treatable medical illness. However, the church is apparently OK with calling a vet for a sick animal.
According to the organisation Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, at least 82 children in this church have died of treatable illnesses. One of them, in fact, was Wenona Rossiter’s brother, who died of untreated leukemia at the age of 7.
Oregon has successfully prosecuted three similar cases in the last three years, putting mothers and fathers in jail on charges of criminal mistreatment, negligent homicide and manslaughter, and sending a message to other faith-healing families that they must seek medical care for their children.
But just across the state line in Idaho there are no such deterrents.
Of the dozen documented cases in the last three years – and there are likely many more that have gone unreported– all were members of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group with a doctrine nearly identical to the Church of the First Born. The Followers are also active in Oregon, where they gained notoriety in the 1990s after a series of high-profile child deaths.
Of the 604 people buried in Idaho’s Peaceful Valley Cemetery, 208 appear to be children, more than 35 percent. 149 of those children – a full 70 percent– were buried there after Idaho adopted its religious defence to manslaughter laws in 1972.
Nearly every American state includes some form of religious exemption from charges against parents who believe solely in faith healing in its criminal or civil codes. Most of these laws are remnants of a decision by the Federal Government in the 1970s – granted at the urging of the Christian Science Church, the nation’s largest faith-healing denomination.
The church used blackmail; it threatened to withhold funding for child abuse programmes in states that did not enact some form of religious immunity for parents who favoured spiritual healing over medical care.
Currently, 32 states, including Idaho, provide a religious defence to felony or misdemeanor crimes specifically against children, including neglect, endangerment and abuse, according to state statutes compiled by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a national advocacy group.
There are 38 states that provide religious exemptions in their civil codes on child abuse and neglect. These can prevent child protective services from investigating and monitoring cases of religion-based medical neglect.
Of the states that still provide a religious defence to felonies against children, Idaho remains in a league of its own. It is one of only six states that provide a religious exemption to manslaughter, negligent homicide or even capital murder (the others being Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio and West Virginia). But of those six, it is the only state where children of faith-healing parents are known to have died in the last 20 years.
Rita Swan, CHILD’s co-founder, describes Idaho as:
The worst in the country.
The state’s religious exemption law describes prayer as a spiritual “treatment” that can act as a legal substitute for medical care. In other words, it can’t be neglect if the child is receiving treatment, even if that treatment consists exclusively of asking God for a miracle.
What’s more absurd, according to Swan, is that the state’s laws inadvertently promote the most extreme behavior among faith-healing parents because of how they’re written: Parents can lose their religious protections the moment they use any other means of care beyond prayer to help cure a child.
If the parent combines prayer with orange juice or a cool bath to bring down a fever the parent loses the exemption.
Not a single criminal charge has been filed in cases of religion-based neglect in the state since legislators enacted the law four decades ago. Boise police declined to even report two faith-healing parents in 2010 after they refused medical care for their critically injured son, citing the religious exemption statute.
The following year, Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris told reporters that she had stopped doing autopsies on children who belonged to the Followers of Christ altogether.
Few with power or political will in Idaho have been compelled to stop the growing body count. With the exception of one local television station in Boise, the revelations, which have been coming to light since last year, attracted scant media attention in the state. Idaho’s largest papers didn’t touch the story, nor did the state’s public radio or alternative weeklies.
Earlier this year, a proposal was introduced in Idaho’s state legislature to amend its religious shield laws, but it never even got to the floor. Scott Bedke, the state’s House speaker, prevented the bill from having a hearing. Even the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, a non-partisan advisory group, declined to support the bill, which became red meat for conservative state legislators who saw it as government intrusion and an assault on religious freedom.
Said Republican Rep Christy Perry, (above) who opposes any change to the law in Idaho:
This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die. This is about where they go for eternity.
Bryan Taylor, the lead prosecutor in Canyon County has stated that his hands are tied by current law.
If they don’t want to have their children go to a doctor, as long as they haven’t caused the injuries, then we don’t really have a leg to stand on in exploring criminal charges.
Outside of Oregon and Idaho, there have been 20 documented faith-healing fatalities of minors since 2008 in 10 different states, including Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to CHILD. But the death count among Followers of Christ puts Idaho well out in front as the deadliest state in the country.
That distinction actually once belonged to Oregon, until a highly publicised child death in 1998 ultimately prompted prosecutors and lawmakers to act.
Oregon, like Idaho, had a religious defense to manslaughter on the books when 11-year-old Bo Phillips died from untreated diabetes that year. His family, who were members of the Followers of Christ, prayed over him and anointed his body with oil instead of taking him to a doctor.
It was the first time authorities felt they had a clear case of abuse in a faith-healing child death. But the district attorney for the county, Terry Gustafson, declined to prosecute the boy’s parents because of ambiguities in the state law.
Gustafson’s decision triggered public outcry across the state. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, the state’s largest paper, launched an investigative series on faith-healing deaths, which found that of the 78 children buried in one Followers cemetery in Oregon City since 1955, 21 had died from treatable illnesses.
Shortly after, ABC’s 20/20 and Diane Sawyer brought national attention to the state’s faith-healing controversy with a prime-time segment on the Followers. By 1999, legislators had eliminated religious protections in cases of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
In 2011, the state eliminated all remaining religious exemptions for denying medical care. Within a few months, Followers of Christ members Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment for allowing a growth the size of a baseball on their infant daughter’s face to go untreated.
They were sentenced to 90 days in jail and eventually lost custody of their daughter. While six states have now struck all religious protections for crimes against children, Oregon’s reforms have shown to be the most sweeping in their transformation. With the Rossiters’ conviction, the state has now won every faith-healing child death case it has prosecuted.
Child protection advocates like Linda Martin, an Idaho native and former member of the Followers of Christ who attended the Rossiters’ trial in Oregon.
believe that without publicity and stiff legal repercussions, children will continue to suffer and die at the hands of faith-healing parents in Idaho. And they are “praying” that they will find a way to make the issue resonate with lawmakers and the public in the state.
If we can change the laws there, we might be able to give some of these kids a chance at growing up. The torture of these children has got to stop.